4 ways to avoid stereotypes in your writing and create rounder, more realistic characters

StereotypesIt can be really hard to avoid stereotypes in characterization when you’re setting up your novel. A stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

We all use stereotypes in everyday life, whether at the grocery store or filling up at the gas station or at a scientific symposium. For better or worse, they help us categorize the world around us.

But they can also get us into trouble when we forget to allow the people around us to be larger and more complex than we expect them to be. Stereotypes are so embedded in our conscious and subconscious that they end up on the pages of our novels before we really have a chance to process why we have chosen them.

These are a few reasons why you should avoid stereotypes in your characterizations.

  • They are unrealistic. People are wide and varied in their looks, interests, and self-expression. Fiction does not always have to reflect reality, of course, but if anything it should push the boundaries and create more options instead of less.
  • They are limiting. Once you decide to allow a character to conform to a stereotype, there’s not much left for them to do. You’re stuck having them act according to that stereotype instead of allowing yourself room to write the story outside those limits.
  • Stereotypes mean flat characters. There’s nothing to a stereotyped character. No motive, no real depth or dimension to him.
  • And once they stop having depth, your characters become uninteresting. Why would you want your characters to be predictable and boring?

If you want your novel to be memorable, you’re going to have to take some time to examine your characters and root out as many stereotypes as you can. Here are four ways to avoid using stereotypes in your writing to create rounder, more realistic characters.

  1. Spend some time people watching, and especially people that are different than you. I know this sounds a little stalker-like, but if you take the time to observe (or better yet, get to know) people who are remarkably different from you, you’ll begin to see how varied their actions, interests, body types, and style preferences are. Inform your writing by learning as much as you can about the people you are trying to portray and writing them as realistically as possible.
  2. Challenge convention. If you can’t find people similar to the characters you are writing, that’s ok. Take a few minutes to ask yourself why you portray each character the way you do, what purpose they serve in the story, and whether your story would be better served if that character did something completely contrary to what people expect. Why constrict your writing and your characters’ potential by forcing them to conform to a specific trope?
  3. Create rounder characters. The definition of a stereotype speaks for itself. It’s oversimplified–a caricature. You owe it to your characters to make them as deep and complex as possible. Again, this comes back to why you portray a character a certain way. Ask yourself if there’s a deeper, more meaningful way to describe that character or their actions.
  4. Make your characters unforgettable. How do you do that? By having them do unexpected things. If a character is flat and unimaginative, if he/she/it conforms to the expectations of your readers in style, language, and actions, then he/she/it will probably not leave much of an impression. Readers remember characters that shake up their world and challenge their preconceived notions of reality.

Discovering stereotypes and conscientiously eliminating them from your writing is hard! It requires that you do some deep self-reflection as well as some heavy developmental editing. But your writing will benefit so greatly from the exercise. And your readers will deeply appreciate the effort.

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3 ways to turn off your inner editor

just writeAh, the inner editor. She’s so helpful when you want to be eloquent. But when you’re drafting she can be the bane of your existence, especially if you ever want to finish a manuscript.

If your inner editor is anything like mine, she’s anxious and picky and painfully overbearing. She insists that everything be perfect, so perfect that she makes it difficult to move on to the next scene, or even the next sentence sometimes!

If you take a step back from your frustrations for a moment, you can see that your inner editor is just trying to be helpful. But she can kill your momentum and your self-esteem, getting in the way of your ability to complete a project.

Here are three ways to turn off your inner editor so you can get some writing done!

  1. Put your editor away – Like, physically put her away. You may want to pick an object, or draw a picture, to represent your inner editor, however you visualize her. Then, once you’ve completed it, thank her for her services and put her in a closet, or a box, or somewhere out of sight where she can’t look over your shoulder and offer criticism. You can pull her back out of the closet when you’ve finished the manuscript. But for now, she needs to shut up and let you do the work.
  2. Break down your writing sessions into manageable pieces – When you think about writing an entire manuscript (all 50,000+ words) your inner editor freaks out. There are too many opportunities to screw things up in that giant project, she says. How can you keep track of it all? Instead, think of each writing session as a separate project. Pick a word count (500, 1000, 1667 words) and focus on that. Don’t worry about the larger picture yet. You and your inner editor can have fun working that out later. For now, your manuscript just needs to get written.
  3. Add a little pressure – Don’t give yourself too long to linger over those 500 (1000, 1667) words. The longer you linger, the easier it is for your inner editor to creep back in and start criticizing what you’ve done and what you haven’t done yet. Set a time limit and push yourself to get to your writing goal before she has a chance to stop you in your tracks!

I use Write Or Die, a fabulous little app to keep my fingers flying over the keys and get me to my daily word count goal as quickly as possible. It’s not very expensive and a great motivational tool. You can try Write or Die out for free here if you’re not convinced yet. Or just set a kitchen timer and get to typing! Whatever you need to do to get the words on the page, do that.

Your inner editor can be a helpful tool when the time is right, so don’t banish her forever. Just remind her that, until you’re done creating, it’s not her turn yet.

Why NaNoWriMo is a great cure for writer’s block

NaNoWriMo
National Novel Writing Month

It’s no secret. I’m a HUGE fan of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo). The event takes place in the month of November. Participants commit to writing a 50,000 new words of a novel in 30 days. In those 30 days, literary madness ensues, fast friendships are forged, barriers are broken, dreams are made realities.

As we get closer to November, more and more posts begin to pop up giving you advice on how to get the most out of your NaNo experience, how to plot or pants with the best of them. (Don’t know what I mean by plotting or pantsing? Click here.)

Some posts, however, argue that NaNo makes worse literature, that NaNo is bad for writing, that it’s a fad diet that won’t keep the pounds off when you get back to daily life.

To those people I say, get out of the way and let people create in whatever way they choose. It’s fine if NaNo doesn’t fit your process. If you need to create in a different way from NaNo, you go right ahead. You do you. But don’t rain on our parade!

Now I agree that 50,000 words does not a novel make, but who ever said that the draft you create during NaNo was supposed to be perfect and publishable? Sure there will be problems with sentence structure, plot holes galore, and overused adverbs in those “winning” NaNo manuscripts. That’s what revision is for!

NaNo provides inspiration and opportunity for all. People who have always wanted to try writing a novel find motivation, encouragement, moral support, and success through NaNo. You can’t edit what you haven’t written yet, right?

Why NaNo is a great cure for writer’s block

I think it’s easy for some people to get so hung up on choosing the right words or expressing their idea in the perfect way that they freeze and can’t write a thing. NaNo can fix that problem. If you have to write 1,667 words a day, you can’t freeze and worry about finding the right words, you just have to write. And spending 30 days regularly meeting a certain word count, whether or not your muse wants to come with you, can unlock your voice in a way that no Creative Writing course could ever do.

What better way to get past writer’s block? So you can’t think of what should happen next in your story, but you have 1,667 words to write that day? Grab a writing prompt, a weird little plot bunny that takes you in a completely different direction for the day. Even if you end up not using that day’s words in your final draft, you will have shown that writer’s block that you’re the boss of your writing.

NaNo is the perfect time to tell your internal editor to take a hike and make yourself sit down and write every day. The best part is, when you get to the end, you can decide whether the NaNo process does or does not work for you and adjust your writing habits accordingly. But if you’ve been telling yourself that there’s no way you could write every day, much less 1,667 words or more a day, NaNoWriMo is your chance to challenge yourself.

At the end of November you might decide to pursue the manuscript and keep working on it, or you might decide to shelve those words and never look at them again. But no words are wasted words! It takes a lot of bad writing to get to the good writing. So pour it all out onto the page and don’t worry. You can edit in December.

3 Ways to Trust Your Readers More

Captain ObviousOne main problem that beginning writers have when drafting their novels is making sure that they get their meaning across to their readers without beating them over the head with it.

It might seem like you can’t leave any room for ambiguity in that one scene– you know the one–because it’s important that your reader knows what’s going on so that they understand what happens later. But never fear! Readers are really good at picking up subtext and connecting the dots.

In fact, you’re more likely to lose your readers’ interest by spelling things out in too much detail because you’ll leave no room for their imagination. Here are three ways to trust your readers more and keep your writing from seeming coarse and redundant.

  1. Use fewer “creative” dialogue tags – It might seem like you’ve used the word “said” a thousand times in your manuscript. And you probably have. But do you know how many times your reader has noticed it? Zero. If you change it up, however, she’s guaranteed to start noticing and possibly getting irritated at having the dialogue explained to her, and that’s going to draw her out of the story. Unless it’s really important to know that a line is whispered or shouted and the context of the dialogue is not going to help the reader get there, you can stick with said and not worry about boring anyone in the slightest.
  2. Try not to spell everything out – Occasionally you might need to clarify what your characters mean, but more often than not you’re wasting words by stating the obvious. And your reader is going to notice. This includes “on-the-nose” dialogue. In real life, people rarely say what they actually mean. Your characters should be no different. Choose your details with care and have your characters keep some of what they mean to themselves.
  3. Resist the urge to reiterate – Repetition has its place in a novel, but there are limits to where you can use it without causing your reader to feel talked down to. You don’t need to remind the reader of major plot points every few pages, or tell her more than once that King Triton is Ariel’s father. She’s going to remember.

The writer-reader relationship takes cultivation, certainly, but remember you don’t have to do all the work. Stop stating the obvious and allow the subtext of your novel to shine through. Your reader will thank you for the opportunity to let her imagination run wild right along with yours.